When Detroit city council president Brenda Jones won a 2018 special election to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of longtime Representative John Conyers Jr., she became the tenth woman to serve in the House from the state of Michigan. Conyers’s decision to leave the House in December 2017 set off a complicated electoral process. Statewide budget troubles led the governor to delay the special election to fill the remainder of Conyers’s term in the 115th Congress (2017–2019) for almost a year, scheduling it for the same day as the general election for the 116th Congress (2019–2021). Jones ran in both the special election, which she won, and the general election, which she lost. Because Jones’s term on Capitol Hill would last only six weeks, House leaders decided that as long as she received no pay from the city of Detroit she did not have to resign from the city council to take her seat in Congress.
Brenda Jones was born on October 24, 1959. Her family moved to Detroit, Michigan, when she was a child, and she graduated from Cass Technical High School. She then earned a bachelor of arts degree and a graduate certificate from Wayne State University.1 Before her political career she worked with Detroit-area unions, serving as president of Communications Workers of America, Local 4004.2
Jones won her first public office in 2005 as a member of the Detroit city council, and she served in city government for more than a decade. From the beginning of her political career, she focused on local issues, and her last name was an acronym for her platform: “JONES—Jobs, Opportunities, Neighborhoods, Education and Safety.”3 As the head of Detroit’s Skilled Trades Task Force, Jones served during a difficult time. The Great Recession had forced the city of Detroit to declare bankruptcy, and the region’s auto industry had collapsed before beginning a slow rebirth after the federal government stepped in to rescue it.4
For years, the member of the Detroit city council who won the most votes in the general election automatically became its president. Following a change in the Detroit charter, however, the city council became responsible for selecting its president at its first meeting of every new session. The council elected Jones as its first president under the new rules in January 2014, by a vote of 5 to 4. Jones was re-elected president in January 2018 on the seventh ballot, again 5 to 4. The Detroit Free Press credited her with running “the city’s most professional, least controversial council in recent history.” The newspaper went on to state that under Jones’s leadership, “the council has shied away from the kind of flamboyant sideshow indulged in previous terms, when the antics of a few members at times dominated council’s deliberations, distracting from hardworking, serious members’ efforts to fulfill their charter-mandated role of legislative and fiscal scrutiny.”5
At the time of Jones’s re-election as council president in 2018, many saw her as one of the most likely candidates to replace John Conyers, who had resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives the previous December.6
When Conyers stepped down, Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder announced that the special election to fill the vacancy in the Thirteenth District would be held on November 6, 2018, the same day as the general election, which, he said, would save the expense of holding a separate election. This meant that the vacancy would last more than 10 months. In March 2018, a judge upheld Snyder’s decision by dismissing a lawsuit seeking to hold the special election earlier in the year. In the meantime, the primary elections for both the special election to fill Conyers’s seat for the remainder of the 115th Congress and the general election for the full term of the 116th Congress were scheduled for August.7
Centered in Detroit, the Thirteenth District had an African-American majority and was a safe Democratic seat; Conyers, in fact, had held it since he first won election in 1965. When the longtime incumbent resigned, several members of prominent Detroit political dynasties, including state senator Coleman Young II, the son of the first African-American mayor of Detroit, and members of Conyers’s own family, quickly announced their candidacies. Despite the crowded primary, observers saw Jones as the leading candidate, given her name recognition and long tenure on the city council.8
Jones announced her candidacy for both the special and general elections in late January 2018, gaining early endorsements from Michigan Representative Brenda L. Lawrence and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. “It is my intention to honor and carry on, to the best of my ability, the legacy of John Conyers,” Jones said. “It is absolutely vital that the progress he made fighting for our human and civil rights is never forgotten.”9
On August 7, 2018, Jones won the Democratic primary for the special election to fill out Conyers’s term in the 115th Congress with 38 percent of the vote. She defeated three other candidates: former state legislator Rashida Tlaib (36 percent), Westland mayor Bill Wild (15 percent), and John Conyers’s nephew, Ian Conyers (11 percent). Jones, however, narrowly lost the Democratic primary for the general election to the 116th Congress: Tlaib won with 31 percent of the vote, and Jones came in second with 30 percent. Notably, Detroit voters cast approximately 2,500 more votes in the primary for the general election than in the primary for the special election.10
Because the Thirteenth District was heavily Democratic, winning the primary election was tantamount to winning the general election. In the immediate aftermath of the primary, Jones faced the prospect of having to resign as city council president to serve out Conyers’s remaining weeks in the 115th Congress. Longstanding House precedent and a constitutional provision (Article I, section 6) prevented Members of Congress from holding two elected offices simultaneously: “no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.” But the city’s top lawyer, Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia, saw no reason for Jones to resign before taking Conyers’s seat and announced that “under Michigan Law, it is permissible (under certain circumstances) for Council President Jones to hold both offices.” Garcia made it clear that the issue would also need to be evaluated from the federal side, and Jones immediately requested an opinion from the House Ethics Committee.11
On November 6, 2018, Brenda Jones formally won the special election to the 115th Congress with 87 percent of the vote. She had also waged a last-minute write-in campaign for the general election but fell well short, taking less than 1 percent of the vote.12
In late November, Jones received informal guidance from the House Ethics Committee that she would not have to resign from the city council if she received no pay from Detroit and the council stayed in recess during her Washington service. A spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin stated, too, that if any Member objected to Jones’s swearing in the case would be referred to the House Administration Committee.13 Ultimately, no Member objected, and the House agreed by unanimous consent to seat Jones without requiring her to resign from the Detroit city council. On November 29, 2018, Jones was sworn in to the 115th Congress by Speaker Ryan. “I am ready to roll up my sleeves in this lame-duck session and do what you expect me to do,” Jones said.14
Despite her short term in the House, Jones introduced two pieces of legislation on December 20, 2018. Her first bill, the Minimum Wage Fairness Act of 2018, would have penalized states that lowered their minimum-wage requirements. Her second bill, the SHELTER Act of 2018, sought to end certain federal tax breaks and to use the resulting revenue to fund affordable housing programs.15 With few days remaining in the Congress, the House took up neither bill.16 On January 3, 2019, upon the end of the 115th Congress, Brenda Jones’s House career came to a close.
1“Brenda Jones,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present.
2“City Council President: Brenda Jones,” City of Detroit, Michigan, accessed 25 June 2019, https://detroitmi.gov/government/city-council/city-council-president.
3“Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones to Run for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District,” 31 January 2018, Michigan Chronicle: A1.
4Donald James, “Jobs and More Jobs for Detroiters Needed to Complete City’s Revitalization Picture,” 24 May 2017, Michigan Chronicle: C1.
5“These Council Hopefuls Should Be in General Election,” 30 July 2017, Detroit Free Press: A16.
6Katrease Stafford, “After 7 Votes, Detroit Council Re-Elects Jones as Its President,” 3 January 2018, Detroit Free Press: A1; David Weigel, “Michigan Democrats Elect Detroit City Council President to Fill out Final Weeks of John Conyers’s Term,” 8 August 2018, PowerPost (blog), Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2018/08/08/michigan-democrats-elect-detroit-city-council-president-to-fill-out-final-weeks-of-john-conyerss-term; “Rashida Tlaib the Right Fit for 13th District,” 29 July 2018, Detroit Free Press: A2.
7Isabella Grullón Paz, “Rashida Tlaib Won a Primary This Week. She Also Lost a Primary This Week,” 9 August 2018, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/09/us/politics/rashida-tlaib-brenda-jones.html.
8“Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones to Run for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District”; Rochelle Riley, “Duggan Backs Jones to Replace Conyers,” 6 February 2018, Detroit Free Press: A5; Jack Lessenberry, “‘Law of the Jungle’ Might Improve Michigan Politics,” 23 February 2018, Windsor Star (Toronto, Canada), https://windsorstar.com/opinion/columnists/lessenberry-law-of-the-jungle-might-improve-michigan-politics; Jack Lessenberry, “Winner in the Race to Replace John Conyers Could Be a Surprise,” 6 April 2018, Windsor Star (Toronto, Canada), https://windsorstar.com/opinion/columnists/lessenberry-winner-in-the-race-to-replace-john-conyers-could-be-a-surprise; Astead W. Herndon, “Change Is Coming to a District that’s Been Waiting for It,” 4 August 2018, New York Times: A11; Katrease Stafford and Todd Spangler, “Jones Holds Slight Lead over Tlaib for Conyers Seat,” 8 August 2018, Detroit Free Press: A9.
9“Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones to Run for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District”; “Duggan Backs Jones to Replace Conyers.”
10“Michigan Primary Election Results,” 24 September 2018, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/07/us/elections/results-michigan-primary-elections.html; Weigel, “Michigan Democrats Elect Detroit City Council President to Fill out Final Weeks of John Conyers’s Term.”
11Weigel, “Michigan Democrats Elect Detroit City Council President to Fill out Final Weeks of John Conyers’s Term;” Cannon’s Precedents of the House of Representatives of the United States, vol. 6, chapter CLVII, section 65 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1935): 75–79; Kat Stafford and Todd Spangler, “Bizarre Twist from Election,” 9 August 2018, Detroit Free Press: A8; Kat Stafford, “City: Jones Can Serve in Both Local, Federal Office,” 14 August 2018, Detroit Free Press: A9; Kat Stafford and Todd Spangler, “Jones Launches Surprising Write-in Effort,” 30 October 2018, Detroit Free Press: A5.
12Stafford and Spangler, “Jones Launches Surprising Write-in Effort”; Fiona Kelliher and Kathleen Gray, “Jones Write-in Push Cites Voter Concern,” 31 October 2018, Battle Creek Enquirer (Michigan): A4; “2018 Michigan Election Results,” Michigan secretary of state, updated 26 November 2018, https://mielections.us/election/results/2018GEN_CENR.html.
13Todd Spangler and Kat Stafford, “With Caveats, Jones May Hold 2 Seats,” 28 November 2018, Detroit Free Press: A1.
14Congressional Record, House, 115th Cong., 2nd sess. (6 December 2018): E1601; Katherine Tully-McManus, “Brenda Jones Sworn into the House for Remainder of Lame Duck,” 29 November 2018, Roll Call: n.p.
15Minimum Wage Fairness Act of 2018, H.R. 7374, 115th Cong., 2nd sess. (2018); SHELTER Act of 2018, H.R. 7375, 115th Cong., 2nd sess. (2018); Melissa Nann Burke, “The 5-Week Congresswoman: Brenda Jones Exiting House,” 2 January 2019, Detroit News, https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/politics/2019/01/01/brenda-jones-serves-three-weeks-congress/2421947002/.
16Burke, “The 5-Week Congresswoman.”